Homebuilders Make the Grade with Back-to-School Features for Buyers

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Leading homebuilders offer tips to parents about which kid-friendly features are important when shopping for a new home

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Over the next few weeks, millions of dollars will be spent on back-to-school supplies and clothes. But while parents are making sure their kids have everything necessary to succeed in the classroom, are they also making sure their home offers the features and functionality that set the stage for academic success throughout the school year?

Good homebuilders, who design homes for families with school-age children, pay close attention to the spaces and features that facilitate studying, socializing and participating in school activities, say a trio of Chicago-area builders. Here are some kid-friendly features that buyers should pay particularly close attention to when home shopping.

Organization - Homecoming King
There is a reason TV shows like "Clean Sweep" and retailers such as The Container Store are such a success - we are a nation that needs help organizing all our stuff. Children are no different, which is why they need to be given designated zones for their school supplies, toys, etc.

"One of the best ways for parents to keep school items organized is to have a drop zone for kids when they get home from school," said John Wozniak, president of J. Lawrence Homes (http://www.jlawrencehomes.com), which is building single-family homes in Chicago's suburbs. "This eliminates looking all over the house for backpacks, lunchboxes and sports gear as everything is kept in one place. A mudroom is a great solution for this and it's becoming an increasingly popular feature in new homes.

"We offer built-in closets and shelving in our mudrooms, but there are all kinds of free-standing cubbies on the market that will keep the space in order," he continued. Buyers should also ask their builder if they will customize a closet or build bookcases, cubbies or shelving."

"We've always had an in-house architect on staff to accommodate buyers' storage needs or designs, but not every builder offers it," said Peggy Taheri, vice president of sales and marketing for Smykal Associates (http://www.smykalhomes.com), Chicago's oldest homebuyer. "However, in today's market, buyers might find builders willing to be more flexible with this request or give them a credit toward an organizer system."

Sufficient closet space is also vital to helping kids contain their clutter, as is having the laundry room on the same floor as the bedrooms, noted Wozniak. "It's much easier for kids to keep their rooms free of dirty clothes if the laundry room is just steps from their room or the bathroom," he said.

Study Hall
When it comes to a good study space, there's more involved than just having room for a desk and chair. Location, lighting, outlet placement and internet access all factor into the equation.

Jeff Benach, co-principal of Lexington Homes (http://www.lexingtonchicago.com), which has built thousands of homes in Illinois, reminds homebuyers with kids in school to select a floor plan that provides an area for doing homework. "We offer a townhome design that includes a den on the main level. It's away from the hustle of the kitchen, but still within earshot of parents," said Benach. As Benach's example proves, smart layouts like this aren't reserved for single-family homes only.

Many new homes also offer built-in desks in the kitchen or near the family room, putting children even closer to a parent should they need help with homework. And for families with teenagers who need distance from high traffic or volume areas like the family room, or require more space for group study sessions, homes with second-floor bonus rooms or lofts can be a smart choice.

"It's all about giving kids options and having a home that will adapt as a family grows and study needs change," said Taheri. "We have homes with lofts, bonus rooms, dens and built-in desks because not all siblings want to study in the same room. You need to give kids their space."

Hands Off
Speaking of space, the less crowded things are at home, particularly in the bathroom during the morning rush, the easier it can be for the entire family. "At school, teachers are always saying 'Keep your hands to yourself' because kids want to be close to their friends. But once kids get home, they'll say 'Don't touch me.' It's a complete 180,'" said Wozniak. "It can particularly get a little stressful when siblings are sharing a bathroom and they're both getting ready at the same time."

To diffuse this type of situation, Wozniak advised buyers to look for homes with kid-friendly baths, including double-bowl vanities and if possible a wet room containing a shower/bath and toilet. This way one child can be using the wet room in privacy, while another is using the vanity.

Dual staircases, en-suite baths and plenty of bedrooms can also make life easier for kids in large families. "To some kids, there's nothing like having your own room and bath," said Taheri, whose company offers homes with up to five bedroom and three baths.

Room for Recess
And to make sure kids aren't cooped up in the house all day, having access to nearby outdoor amenities that can boost children's fitness levels and keep them safely occupied is also important in a kid-friendly home search.

"In the suburbs, look for communities that are incorporating green space into their design. And in urban areas, focus in on homes that are within safe walking distance to a park," said Benach, whose latest Chicago townhome development is located across the street from a public park.

Many new-home communities also offer private clubhouses or recreational offerings that are great for kids. "We see our pool and clubhouse at Midlane Club as a great opportunity for kids to make new friendships with their neighbors," said Wozniak. "And of course it's also a big hit with the kids at school. Who doesn't want a friend who has access to a pool?"

For more information on J. Lawrence Homes, visit http://www.jlawrencehomes.com; for more information on Smykal Associates, visit http://www.smykalhomes.com; and for Lexington Homes, visit http://www.lexingtonchicago.com.

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